Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to Reading Reading Capital

By Bernard E. Harcourt

Reading Reading Capital: surely, the linguistic reprise does not escape you. Our project, very much like the project of Louis Althusser and his students, is to return to a formative critical text in order to deploy it in our contemporary political struggles. That, I would argue, was Althusser’s project—as it is ours.

The proximity raises, as an introductory matter, three issues which, I hope, will guide in part our discussion in the seminar Critique 5/13 with Étienne Balibar who has already posted a brilliant preface:

  1. How does Althusser’s and his students’s project in Reading Capital compare to our project in Critique 13/13? What are the differences and, if there are any, how might they inform or transform our project here in Critique 13/13?
  2. How does Althusser’s reading method—what he refers to as the “symptomatic” (symptomale) method—relate to the critical reading methods we discussed in the first seminar, Critique 1/13? How might the differences enrich our critical reading methods here?
  3. How can Althusser’s and his students’s substantive interpretation of Marx’s Capital inform our substantive reading of Reading Capital in such a way as to enable us to deploy our reading of Reading Capital for purposes of our contemporary political struggles?

Project. Method. Deployment. Those are three important dimensions that I hope we will explore in this seminar Critique 5/13. And I could not think of anyone better suited to discuss these questions with us than Étienne Balibar, who not only participated in the original project with Althusser and co-authored the book itself Reading Capital, but has since become the leading and most influential French philosopher in critical philosophy and contemporary politics. It is an honor and a privilege to welcome Étienne Balibar to Critique 5/13!

Very quickly, to set the stage for our seminar discussion them, let me lay the groundwork for each of these three dimensions.

The Project

What is it to read?” Althusser asks in the very first pages of Reading Capital. (13) That is the question we have been asking ourselves—the very question at the root of this effort to “return” to these critical texts. But reading Reading Capital immediately creates an important distinction between the project to read and the reading method, in part because Althusser is so precise about what he calls his symptomatic reading method (294). By so clearly demarcating his method of critical reading, it becomes clear that we must differentiate, from the reading method, the overall project or ambition of the enterprise of “returning” to a formative critical text.

Our discussion in the first seminar, “In Search of a Method,” I now realize, blurred that distinction somewhat, allowing us to go back and forth between the ambition of returning to these critical texts and the proper or exact method to critically read them.

Of course, for Althusser, the ambition and the method (and the substantive interpretation of Marx) all overlap, so it is hard to tease them apart. For Althusser, returning to Marx provides a new method of reading that is inextricably tied to the scientific break in Marx’s writings. Althusser says as much, I think, in the following paragraph:

Returning to Marx, we note that not only in what he says but in what he does we can grasp the transition from an earlier idea and practice of reading to a new practice of reading, and to a theory of history capable of providing us with a new theory of reading. (16)

The critical method emerges from returning to Marx and can be found in Marx’s own practice of reading earlier political economists, and so it is inextricably tied to Marx’s scientific approach—all three dimensions are interwoven, it seems.

But that may not always or necessarily be the case, or at least, it now appears to me, that may not be the case with the approach I proposed in the first seminar. The presentism and brutalism of the approach I sketched may well apply to the project, but not necessarily to the reading method. This poses the question whether there is a necessary connection between the ambition of returning to these critical texts and the critical method we use in doing so?

The Method

I would propose, as an initial matter, that Althusser developed a very specific symptomatic reading method (294-95) in order to distinguish his own approach to Marx from a Hegelian dialectical reading method, in line and in light of his substantive interpretation of Marx (as a founder of a science).

Althusser’s symptomatic reading differs markedly from a dialectical method that would focus on inherent internal contradictions in the text. The classic dialectical method—the method of immanent critique—would focus on a necessary internal contradiction within a practice, ideology, value set, or text, to show how the inherent contradiction necessarily leads to an overcoming that transforms the practices or values in a way that forces us to accept them because they remain internal to the original project. Much critical theoretic work would draw on this Hegelian method of immanent critique. One could say, it was or still is a dominant method in critical philosophy.

But Althusser develops a different method, I would argue, precisely because he wants to expel the Hegel from Marx. It would indeed be internally contradictory or incoherent to use a Hegelian dialectical reading method to extract Hegel from Marx’s Capital.

The symptomatic reading is informed, instead, by discourse analysis and the concepts of legibility and illegibility. It is not surprising, then, that Althusser expressly refers to and borrows language from Foucault’s History of Madness in his introductory remarks, when he writes that “we have evoked the conditions of possibility of the visible and the invisible, of the inside and the outside of the theoretical field that defines the visible” (25).

Althusser’s method focuses on those moments when something that was illegible is rendered legible, when something that was an oversight becomes a sighting (17). The key illustration is the theory of surplus-value, which floated silently in the work of Smith and Ricardo, but became legible and at the center of Marx’s Capital.

What can we do with this symptomatic method today? How can it inform our own approach to these critical texts given our ambition of deploying the texts for purposes of our political struggles? Is it, in some sense, unique to reading Marx’s Capital? Is it necessarily bound or tied down to a scientific interpretation of the text itself?

You will recall that, during that first seminar, Étienne Balibar proposed a method of critical reading, in dialogue with Gilles Deleuze’s text “The Method of Dramatization,” that approaches the text as a battlefield. “We must read a text as a battlefield, as a space of conflict, and here Skinner is relevant, because the conflict is with other texts, with other people perhaps, but with other texts, rival, adversary, or even intimate enemies. The conflict is within the text, with the text itself.” (Critique 1/13 at 1:49) What are we to make of Balibar’s battlefield method of reading? How does it relate to Althusser’s symptomatic approach? And if it differs, which is more attractive to us today?

The Substantive Interpretation of Marx

A general outline of Althusser’s interpretation of Marx’s Capital provides that the text itself constitutes a sharp rupture in Marx’s work from an earlier humanist approach (characterized by a philosophical inquiry into the human experience of the worker influenced by Hegel’s dialectic, especially the master-slave dialectic, and generally associated with the writings of what had come to be known as “the Young Marx”) to a purely scientific approach focused principally on the theory of surplus-value.

Althusser refers to a “break” in Marx’s work, in his own words, to “the mutation by which a new science is established in a new problematic, separated from the old ideological problematic.” (305) This break occurs when Marx discovers the scientific theory of surplus-value that Smith and Ricardo had sensed but not identified. On this view, “Marx thus appears as the founder of a science, comparable with Galileo or Lavoisier.” (304) This then produces a reading of Marx as no longer a philosopher influenced by Hegel or the Hegelian dialectic, but at the source of a new science of political economy.

The question for us, then, is not just what work that move made at the time, in the mid-1960s. The answer to that question would merely throw us back into the historical conjuncture of Western communism, the Soviet Union, and Mao’s China at the height of the Cold War.

The question instead, for us, is how to read Althusser’s choice to push Marx into science today? Can it inform our analyses of neoliberalism today? How does it intersect with the digital revolution in economic relations today? How might it relate to Judith Revel’s thesis in Critique 3/13 that the uberization of the economy has transformed us all into domestic workers? What work might it do in the whole debate over the supposed “post-truth era” that we are living in? Should it still guide our use and deployment of Marx today? Or are we better served by returning to the more Hegelian reading of Capital, through the lens of the Young Marx?

Those are some of the extremely difficult and challenging questions we hope to address.

Welcome to 5/13!